Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is also President of the American Academy of Religion (2018). This brief memoir relates his journey to faith in Christ, into American evangelical academic institutions, and then away from self-identifying as an evangelical. Gushee writes not from memory but based upon four decades of records. He explains, “I’m a compulsive journaler and record keeper. I have kept every lecture and speech I’ve ever given, and pretty much all of my important correspondence. And all along the way, I’ve been journaling almost every day about most every important thing I’ve experienced” (xii). This is not another tale of a defector from the faith. Gushee explains, “The stories I am going to tell you are not the stories of a disillusioned ex-Christian. It’s weird, perhaps, but none of the nasty stuff I’ve seen in churches or denominations or seminaries or colleges or academia has ever really had an effect on my faith in Jesus. Jesus isn’t the problem. Christians are” (xvii). To be more specific, Gushee’s problem is with conservative, American, evangelical Christians.
Gushee begins by narrating his conversion to Christianity as a sixteen-year-old. It, like all conversion stories, is an example of how the grace of God moves into a person’s life and changes it forever. After going from a Southern Baptist youth group to the College of William and Mary, Gushee completed ministerial training at Southern Seminary and was ordained as a pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention. He chose to do doctoral work in ethics at Union Seminary in New York. He served several years on staff at Evangelicals for Social Action before accepting a teaching position at Southern Seminary. His time at Southern was short. This section of the book might be the most painful to read. Gushee was a moderate and thus could not remain long in a place where belief in inerrancy was required. Yet the story of a young faculty member who quickly came to realize that he was not where he belonged is a moving one. After three years, Gushee joined the faculty of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. During these years, his voice against torture and in support of the science of climate change increasingly put him on the margins of conservative evangelicalism and led to a move to Mercer University. But it was the publication of Changing Our Mind (Canton, MI: David Crumm Media, 2014) that was a watershed. In this book, Gushee “chronicled the process by which [his] thinking had changed” on homosexuality and related his “new solidarity with LGBT Christians” (131).
This is a moving story. It is hard to read because it is the story of real people with real differences of opinion and real conflict. Yet Gushee’s story is largely the tale of someone who was, at best, on the fringes of evangelicalism from the beginning and who moved further away as his thinking evolved.
It would have been helpful if Gushee had defined evangelicalism. If belief in biblical inerrancy is part of the definition, he left evangelicalism a long time ago. If evangelicalism is defined by a set of institutions and denominations that loosely identify with the movement, his involvement in the Southern Baptist Convention and Union University surely included him. But even then, by his admission, he was on the fringes of evangelicalism. It is inconceivable that anyone who has spent any time in evangelicalism would be surprised that unqualified support for LGBTQ Christians would bring criticism. Yet Gushee writes of Changing Our Mind, “What I did not know was that changing my mind would also entirely change my relationship with the evangelical world that I had been describing” (131). Surely, he is not that naïve. One could hardly be within the American evangelical subculture and not understand the sexual ethics of the movement. Interestingly, Gushee seems to indicate he knows this as he describes his “lower inhibitions” due to a series of tragedies: “I now think that the many losses I experienced in 2014, especially my mother dying from cancer in a process that had lasted through the summer of 2014, somewhat unhinged me” (134–35). Gushee concludes, “So getting slapped around a bit for standing with gay people was undoubtedly good for me. It was just the smallest taste of what they have experienced their whole lives. It helped me identify with marginalized people in a more visceral way than I ever had before” (143–44).
In recent years, many “evangelical Christians” have expressed concern about the value of the label and there have been some who have described themselves as “former evangelicals.” Like Gushee, others have expressed their love of Jesus but a lack of appreciation for the church (e.g., from a decade ago, see Dan Kimball, They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009]). This book is different because Gushee spent his adult life within the evangelical academic world. He was shaped by those experiences in both positive and negative ways. In the end, his changed perspectives made it impossible for him to remain within a community that holds different views of human sexuality.
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